Home Health Why and How To Stop for Sleep

Why and How To Stop for Sleep

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Why and How To Stop for Sleep

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It’s a tale as old as time: You get into bed after a long day, turn the lights off, curl up under the covers, and close your eyes, hoping for a much-needed good night’s sleep. But the second your head hits the pillow at night, it feels like your thoughts start racing a mile a minute. No matter how tired you are, or how much you’ve been craving rest all day, you just can’t seem to figure out how to quiet your anxious thoughts at night for long enough to fall asleep.

Maybe you find yourself thinking about everything you have to get done tomorrow, family obligations, work stress, or even that slightly embarrassing comment you made earlier in the day (or, let’s be honest, back in junior high). In any case, experiencing racing thoughts at night is far from rare. “Many people experience thoughts that are obsessive, rapid, and won’t go away [when trying to fall asleep],” says psychiatrist Allie Sharma, MD, co-founder and chief medical officer of mental health practice Being Health.

While these thought spirals can be a symptom of a mental health condition like generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or bipolar disorder, experts say anyone can experience them. To be sure, “people who have racing or ruminative thoughts before bed usually have some form of anxiety,” says clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD. “But it does not have to be at the clinical level.”


Experts In This Article

  • Allie Sharma, MD, board-certified psychiatrist and co-founder and chief medical officer at Being Health, a mental health practice in New York City
  • Kate Kaplan, PhD, clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sleep difficulties and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Michael Breus, PhD, sleep expert and clinical psychologist
  • Nicole Short, PhD, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Racing thoughts can also be caused simply by the stress someone is dealing with in their daily life, which can trigger the kind of distracted mind-wandering often called “monkey mind.”

Why is my mind so overactive at night?

Racing thoughts can occur at any time, but there is one key reason they tend to happen more at night: For many people, bedtime is the only time they really get to be alone with their thoughts. “People are often so busy that [nighttime] is literally the first time in the day that they get to stop and think,” says Dr. Breus.

“People are often so busy that [nighttime] is literally the first time in the day that they get to stop and think.” —Michael Breus, PhD, clinical psychologist and sleep specialist

Whether you’re rushing off to an early exercise class before work, taking care of family all day, balancing studying with household duties, trying to get a side hustle off the ground, or some combination of the above, you may spend your days in go-go-go mode with little time to acknowledge the emotions connected with everything going on in your life. That is, until you finally get time to rest, says Dr. Sharma. “By the end of the day, many people have not had time to think or process what happened during the day due to the sheer volume of tasks and overload of responsibilities.”

The result? All of the stresses of the day can bubble up as racing thoughts at night, says Dr. Sharma, once there’s finally nothing else requiring your attention or focus.

And even on days that aren’t too busy or outwardly stressful, people tend to fill their waking hours with plenty of outside distractions that keep the mind occupied—which is another reason why racing thoughts tend to occur at night, says clinical psychologist Kate Kaplan, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Without the conversation, work email, or television show to focus on, thoughts may instead take center stage.”

Separately, what you bring into your body can also contribute to racing thoughts. Dr. Sharma says that substances such as stimulants, psychedelics, some prescription pills, alcohol, and marijuana can all lead to racing thoughts, as can caffeine and nicotine, “both the use and the withdrawal.” And Dr. Breus notes that “drinking a lot of energy drinks,” specifically, is another common cause.

What are racing thoughts a symptom of?

Unfortunately for those of us who have dealt with racing thoughts—and in turn, a lack of quality sleep—there’s no one cause to blame. But looking at how frequently someone experiences this issue can help determine whether it’s a symptom of something bigger or just a response to everyday stress.

Clinical psychologist Nicole Short, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says there’s cause for concern if racing thoughts are persistent or happening more nights than not, adding that “they can be a sign of anxiety, depression, or ADHD.” Other potential root causes include other conditions that alter a person’s thought processes, like bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizoaffective disorder, according to Dr. Sharma.

Where anxiety is the culprit, racing thoughts tend to occur alongside physical symptoms of anxiety1—like faster breathing, a rapid heart rate, and an inability to stay still (hello tossing and turning!)—as well as irrational fears and in some cases panic attacks, says Dr. Sharma. Whereas, with depression, racing thoughts at night are typically present in patients “who are suffering from negative, self-deprecating thoughts that are persistent and cause distress.”

But again, experiencing racing thoughts (at night or otherwise) doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder. Yes, racing thoughts “can cause significant distress,” but they “would be one of many symptoms that would have to be present in order to establish any diagnosis,” says Dr. Sharma.

Why does anxiety get worse at night?

Anxiety and sleep issues tend to go hand-in-hand, as just about anyone with anxiety will tell you. In fact, anxiety disorders and sleep disorders are actually considered common comorbidities2, and studies show3 that people with anxiety disorders are more prone to sleep disturbances like insomnia and nightmares.

This doesn’t mean that someone’s anxiety will go away during the daytime, though. There’s just more opportunity for it to rear its head when the outside world is quiet. During the day, anxious people may be focusing their energy on any number of tasks they need to accomplish. But come bedtime, those distractions fade away, leaving more space for the anxiety to take hold.

Essentially, your mind may use the calm of night as an opportunity to “chew over the events of what is bothering you,” whether it’s a stressful situation that happened, say, at work or with your children that day, says Dr. Sharma. When you don’t create the space to think about the situation and feel your feelings during the day, the thoughts can just pile on at night, she says.

There’s also the issue of sleep anxiety, which refers to the particular kind of anxiety that comes from not being able to fall asleep and worrying about not getting enough sleep as a result. Dr. Kaplan notes that this form of anxiety is another contributing factor to racing thoughts at night. “Over time, when one struggles to fall asleep night after night, the bed itself may become associated with worry, anxiety, or arousal, triggering even more of that ‘racing mind’ at bedtime,” she says.

How to reduce racing thoughts at night

Just because you may be struggling with racing thoughts at night doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them—so, try not to, well, worry about all those worries. Below, you’ll find plenty of techniques you can try throughout the day and in the moment to help keep racing thoughts at bay.

1. Establish a bedtime routine

“Having a good wind-down routine in the hour before bed that’s focused on relaxing, pleasant activities can be helpful,” says Dr. Kaplan. Doing the same things before bed each night signals to your brain that it’s time to rest and can help ease you into sleep.

While the ideal bedtime routine will look different for everyone, there are a few general components you’ll want to include. Going to bed at the same time each night is one of them, as is avoiding too many stimuli in the hour before bed—yes, that means you should be putting your phone and laptop away and shutting off the TV before winding down. You can also consider adding a few self-care elements into your bedtime ritual, like a nice warm shower or bath, an intentional skin-care routine, or a cozy cup of tea or sleepy girl mocktail.

2. Make sure your day is set up in a sleep-friendly way

Having a solid bedtime routine isn’t the only way to help keep racing thoughts at night in check. In fact, Dr. Short says your behavior during the day—including what you do in the morning and in the afternoon—can play just as big a role in setting you up to doze off easily at night.

“People should make sure they are waking up at the same time each morning, using their bed only for sleep (and not other activities), and avoiding naps if they are not tired at night,” says Dr. Short. “It is also important that people are active during the day, so that they will actually be tired at night.”

Creating a workout routine for better sleep might look like doing moderate physical activity at least three hours before your bedtime (if you’re an evening exerciser) or starting your day with vigorous activity (if you’re a morning exerciser) to ensure that, again, you’re sufficiently tired by nighttime and more likely to fall asleep quickly when you hit the hay.

3. Acknowledge stressful thoughts throughout the day

Because racing thoughts at night are so commonly caused by ignoring stressful moments throughout the day, Dr. Sharma suggests being mindful of your worries in the moment when they’re actually arising, as much as you can.

“Try to notice during the day when things bother you,” says Dr. Sharma, “and rather than push [these worries] away, acknowledge them even for a moment, or take a minute to jot down your thoughts on your phone and come back to them later, when you have more time.” The act of turning your attention to your stressors during the day, even if just for a few seconds, can keep them from ballooning to outsize proportions come nighttime.

4. Carve out a worry period during the daytime

If acknowledging your thoughts and concerns whenever they pop up feels like too big of an ask, you can also dedicate a specific time each day to focus directly on them.

“Set aside a 20-minute block of time, ideally at the same time and place each day, where you allow worries to occur,” suggests Dr. Kaplan. This creates a sort of container for the worries that can better train your brain to avoid rabbit-holing when you’re trying to sleep. “If worries come up outside of this block of time, including at night, you can remind yourself to ‘postpone’ these worries for your next scheduled worry period,” says Dr. Kaplan, freeing up your brain for sleep.

5. Add mindful activities to your day

Dr. Sharma suggests adding activities into your daily life that can help promote mindfulness and thus reduce the intensity of racing thoughts at night.

“Deep breathing and relaxation are wonderful ways to decompress, as are meditation and yoga,” says Dr. Sharma. Other people may resonate more with gardening, cooking, or reading, she says—all of which can bring you into the present moment, essentially strengthening the brain’s ability to avoid ruminative spiraling.

6. Get out of bed for a bit

If all else fails and after 15 or 20 minutes, you still find yourself in bed tossing and turning as thoughts spiral through your mind, the best course of action is actually getting up and engaging in some sort of pleasant distraction for a little while, says Dr. Short.

It might seem counterintuitive, but getting out of bed is among many sleep doctors’ top tips for sleep difficulties because it can help the brain avoid associating the bed with a place for wakefulness and help take some of the pressure off of continually trying to fall asleep.

In particular, Dr. Short suggests relocating to the couch or a comfy chair and reading a book or doing something else relaxing in dim lighting for 10 to 30 minutes. “Then try again to go to bed once you actually feel sleepy,” she says, and you might just be surprised at your better luck the second go-round.

How do you get back to sleep when your mind is racing?

If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night to racing thoughts, there are a few things you can try to help yourself fall back asleep. Dr. Kaplan suggests turning to calming breathing exercises or meditation (perhaps via a meditation app) to help your body and mind relax again. But she also cautions against putting pressure on yourself to fall back asleep quickly.

“The goal of these techniques is not to make sleep happen—sometimes the more we try to sleep, the more performance anxiety we create and the more it backfires—but rather to turn the channel from racing thoughts onto more relaxing topics, which might then set the stage for sleep to occur,” says Dr. Kaplan.

When to speak to a doctor about racing thoughts at night

While racing thoughts at night may be stressful, medical attention isn’t always necessary, especially if they’re not a common occurrence. But if you experience racing thoughts multiple nights a week or find that your sleep or daytime functioning are being impacted by such overthinking, it’s time to speak to a doctor, says Dr. Short.

“You could start with your general practitioner, but a psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine is ideal to help figure out what’s going on,” says Dr. Short.

Finding a sleep professional to help is especially important if the racing thoughts at night create insomnia, says Dr. Kaplan. At that point, “seeking a provider trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) can be helpful,” she says, referring to the first-line treatment for insomnia that focuses on changing the thoughts and behaviors that may be contributing to a person’s sleep issues.

Both the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine have directories of CBT-I providers.


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.


  1. Gelenberg, Alan J.. “Psychiatric and Somatic Markers of Anxiety: Identification and Pharmacologic Treatment.” Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry vol. 2,2 (2000): 49-54. doi:10.4088/pcc.v02n0204

  2. Gao, May et al. “Targeting Anxiety to Improve Sleep Disturbance: A Randomized Clinical Trial of App-Based Mindfulness Training.” Psychosomatic medicine vol. 84,5 (2022): 632-642. doi:10.1097/PSY.0000000000001083

  3. Staner, Luc. “Sleep and anxiety disorders.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 5,3 (2003): 249-58. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2003.5.3/lstaner


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